Spelling rules

Heaps of books and internet sites will tell you that there are many spelling rules, and if you learn all the rules you will be able to spell.

For example:

Rule: “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”

This means that when you have two vowel letters together in a word, you say the name of the first letter for both letters.

This works for words like sundae, rain, been, eat, seize, people, pie, boat, toe, brooch, soul, cue, nuisance and vacuum.

It doesn’t work for words like baa, maestro, said, plait, bonsai, fault, caution, aunt, deaf, great, vein, feisty, feud, friend, skiing, does, phoenix, boil, food, good, blood, loud, cousin, youth, and I could go on with this list for a very long time.

Spelling rules don't work

Once you start trying to use spelling rules, you find that even “I before E except after C” doesn’t work all the time. Witness rein, veil, sieve, surveillance, protein, counterfeit, sheila, seize, apartheid, eiderdown, kaleidoscope, poltergeist, seismic, leisure and heifer.

C sounds like S before E, I and Y” is about the closest English spelling gets to a rule that works, but then you come across the words ocean, herbaceous, cetacean, curvaceous, crustacean, liquorice or licorice, cello and concerto.

A good rule is clear and works all the time. Under this definition, spelling rules aren’t rules at all, they’re more like guidelines, and often not very helpful ones.

Spelling rules are couched in complex language

The other problem with using “rules” to teach spelling is that the language of the rules themselves is too complicated for young children and those with language difficulties.

They tend to include jargon words like "vowel" and "syllable" and "stressed", and complex verbal reasoning using conjunctions like "before/after", "except" and "if…then" in complicated sentences.

Even I sometimes don't really understand what a spelling rule means. Consider the following: "for action words that end in ie, change the 'ie' to a 'y' before adding an 'ing'". Now consider some examples: tie-tying, lie-lying, die-dying. Which was more helpful, the rule or the examples?

Demonstrate spelling patterns instead

We might as well chuck away spelling rules and their jargon altogether, and get on with demonstrating spelling patterns in an orderly way, and letting the patterns speak for themselves.

2 thoughts on “Spelling rules

  1. joanne

    Thanks for this post, Alison. I have watched quite a few of your videos that point out there is a (short) vowel sound before ck and others that mention that English words don’t end in an ‘i’ so I have adapted that and we play your bingo games also. However, I am actually really torn because even the programs that are on the recommended list from SPELD have rules such as the floss rule (even if we call it a pattern, it is really a rule), ck and k explicit lessons. I also found that many of my students just didn’t know which beginning k choice until I pointed out the pattern/rule that i, e or y usually comes after k in English words. Nessy also has loads of spelling rules videos of when to use tch or ch (for example) and this was also explained in a SOR short course I did. It was all new to me and actually helped me as an adult with spelling choices as I had never noticed. I definitely don’t do the “2 vowels go walking” or magic e idea as I use the terms “digraph” but I am still not sure how to cement good spelling choices into these little people.

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Joanne, thanks for this feedback, this is 2012 blog post, and I’d probably write it in a more nuanced way now. It is talking about the kind of spelling rules that are full of “if” and “except” and “but only” statements and metalanguage. There are heaps of them in spelling rule books and on the internet, they say things like “Verbs ending in –r: Double the r for words of more than one syllable when the stress does not fall on the first syllable, before adding -ing, -ed and some suffixes”. They make everyone’s eyes glaze over, even the kids who can understand such complex language, because they are a bit like trying to explain in long, complicated sentences how to dance the tango. They make absolutely no sense without examples, and actually the examples and the practice are when the learning starts. But I do say things like “ck goes at the end of ack, eck, ick, ock, uck words, but not ake, eek, ike, oke or uke words”, and “we usually write the sound /k/ with a letter k before the letters e, i and y”, which I guess could be construed as rules, even though I don’t use the “R-word”. I’ve had too many gotcha moments with kids with autism, when I told them a spelling rule and they immediately thought of words to which it didn’t apply. But the main thing I try to do is give kids lots of structured practice, and then opportunities to apply this knowledge, I’m sure you do too.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *